Of Genres, Boundaries and Plain English

October 9th, 2009 - 

Reference: Carpenter, R (2009) Boundary negotiations: electronic environments as interface. Computers and Composition. 26, 138-148.

Much of cyberculture academia seems to concern itself with the observation of what Carpenter identifies as ‘genres’ – means or modes of expression with their own cultural sets of rules and behaviours. Wednesday night’s Skype tutorial clarified a lot of this for me – most especially the example that ‘blogging is a genre of popular culture, whereas broadsheets are a genre of academic culture’. A very useful example I thought, illustrating the possible boundaries between these genres: one which made me think how the lines between the two have become so wonderfully blurred in the last two years or so.

What sruck me this morning though,  is that in reading these studies of cyberculture and the genres and activity systems within them, we are being exposed to another genre: that of academic writing on these subjects. If genres are largely defined by the unspoken, undocumented sets of behaviours and ‘ways of being’ that form them, we could go as far as to make a study of those doing the studying.

And it makes for an interesting set of behaviours in and of itself. Carpenter’s article starts warmly enough, with a humourous account from his undergrad days of trying a transliteral presentation and the anxieties it caused both him, his fellow students and his tutors. It made a refreshing change from the somewhat obtuse and impenetrable language of some of the readings within week 1 and 2. But then, on pg. 140, we get this:

‘This reconceptualization of genre calls for a reinterpretation of interface that extends beyond user-system interaction to include interactions between the user and multiple, sometimes competing, systems as well as between systems themselves.  Such a view allows us to examine systems relations not simply in terms of juxtaposed boundaries but rather as dynamic boundary negotiations mediated by genres that are themselves mediated by the boundary interface.”

Come again?

I’m sorry, but I have never met, heard, seen or been told of a single human being on planet earth that actually talks like this.  Stephen Fry doesn’t talk like this.

I find it peculiar and fascinating that a discipline of study which examines cyberculture and its endlessly fluid, constantly playful, hilariously subversive ‘genres’ is so frequently reported on in a form of language which is not just a thousand miles from the culture which it is studying, but seems a world away from the general speech patterns and communication forms of the average human being.

Where does this come from? Why do so many academics in this field insist on using this tortured, alienating form of language to communicate their ideas? It’s baffling in the extreme. For a group of academics driven by the motivation to reveal the hidden cultures of cyberspace and the popular culture which is its beating heart, they seem singularly determined to make sure that vast majority of human beings can’t understand them.

Boundaries indeed.

I realise, reading back over this text, that this may come across as another ill-tempered gripe about academia, but it does occur to me that a study of this ‘genre’ itself could be highly revealing; not just for a window into cyberculture studies itself, but into those who engage in it.  Why this use of language? Why this highly selective and exclusive choice of vocabulary? Who does it serve? Who are they trying to impress?  How does it ‘function’?

Or am I just becoming a hideously out-of-touch, grumpy old man who can’t keep up with the kids?